Being an English teacher is a reasonable way to live and work in many different countries around the world. With some rare exceptions, however, you aren’t going to make a lot of money doing it. The places you can make really great money are not going to work for me. I’m not interested in working in the Middle East. Turkey was close enough for me, but I understand that Saudi Arabia pays very well–if you don’t mind living in a compound and wearing a burka. I’m too old to get a work visa in South Korea (they won’t issue one for people over age 45). China also has visa age limits, though if you are willing to work outside of the major cities, you can probably get one. Unfortunately, China has a horrible reputation for living up to contracts, so you may or may not get the big money promised. And the pollution and restrictions on personal freedom (no Google, Gmail, Facebook, Twitter…..) will probably keep me away from there, except as an occasional tourist.
Not being independently wealthy IS getting in the way of the life I want to lead. It’s not going to stop me, however. Maybe you’re in the same boat. Unless you have a rich family, a regular source of income (like a retirement pension), or have stashed away a bundle before you left home, you are going to have to find ways to live frugally. Currently, I’m in Mexico, but most of these tips will work anywhere in the world. I know that, because this is my fifth country outside of the USA. Here are some things I do to keep my expenses low.
Hair: I keep a very simple hairstyle that I can trim myself—shoulder length, which I wear in a ponytail or with a headband. I don’t color or perm my hair—which means I have completely grey hair now. Am I stylish? Of course not. But this saves money on trips to the beauty shop, plus it saves in frustration. It’s almost impossible to explain what you want to a stylist when the two of you don’t share a language. It also means I need fewer hair products in general.
Clothes: I have a job where I don’t have to dress up, which makes my life much easier and it keeps down the expenses. I have mostly solid color pants/shorts/ tops that can be mixed and matched. My color scheme is pretty boring: black, grey and red. Nothing needs to be ironed or has any special washing instructions. For color and to keep from looking like I’m homeless, I use scarves or simple necklaces. I have scarves from all over the world, in fact.
Makeup: I don’t wear much. I use a simple foundation with sunscreen, powder and lipstick. I rarely wear eye makeup. Makeup products are always pricey and, let’s face it, you don’t always know what you are buying. I know how to wear eye makeup, but 15 minutes after I put it on, I’ve smeared it halfway down my cheeks. Best to do without. Do you get the idea that I’m simply not fashionable?
Eat on the Street: Street food is cheap and there are lots of healthy options. Lots of UN-healthy ones, too! Of course there are risks when you eat off food carts, but that’s true even in NYC. Most countries sell fresh fruit or vegetables on the street. If you’re concerned about cleanliness, stick with fruits that you can peel yourself. For example, I eat an avocado every day here in Mexico because they are inexpensive and filling, not to mention healthy. Bananas and oranges are cheap in most countries. When there’s meat involved, I stick with carts that cook the food right as I stand there and watch. The exception is tacos de canasta, which are wrapped and then steamed. Steam kills most any germs. In Vietnam, there was piping hot soup. Usually bread items are fairly safe on the street. Deep fried foods, though not the healthiest option, are fairly safe from a germ standpoint, though not great for your heart. Not many bacteria or viruses can live through a deep fat fryer.
The one item I stay away from is drinks that are sold on the street, but aren’t bottled, especially in countries where I wouldn’t drink the water from the tap. I also get most drinks without ice. The exception is iced coffee or iced tea. Coffee and tea are usually boiled, but also they do a fair job on their own of killing most beasties in the water.
Eat the local food, in season: Eat what the locals eat. Fast food may be cheap in the USA, but it isn’t in China, SE Asia, Turkey and Latin America. Besides, the local cuisine is probably much more interesting and healthier. As I type this, cactus fruits are in season, tunas, and they are reported to lower blood sugar.
Learn to love plain water: Water is the best liquid for you. Even if you can’t drink the water from the tap, bottled water will probably be less expensive than any other liquid you can buy. The exception seems to be Spain, where the cheapest wine—which was still pretty good!—was less expensive than a bottle of water. Here in Mexico, fresh fruit juices are only slightly more than bottled water and often less expensive than coffee or tea drinks.
I also try to save in this area, since buying water can add up. The larger the container, the less expensive, so go big. Unfortunately, the largest sizes are very heavy. I now carry an electric kettle and a water purifying pitcher from country to country. Here in Mexico, the water quality isn’t totally horrible (better than I expected), but I still don’t drink the water from the tap. I will, however, boil the water and then filter it after it cools. I expect this is as safe as most bottled water. In some cases it might be safer since there are few quality standards for bottled water, even in the USA. I also believe that this is a better environmental option, since the plastic bottles just end up in the trash. There’s little recycling here or in most undeveloped countries.
When I don’t drink water, I usually have tea or coffee, made in my room with my electric kettle.
Walk: Even the cost of cheap transportation adds up over time. I take the bus or an Uber occasionally. I took a taxi a couple times during my first few days here, but usually I use my feet. It keeps me in shape and reduces my need for a gym membership. (Which I still need. The food here is too good!)
Living accommodations: Learn to lower your standards. When I travel, I stay in hostels, which are cheap, but have zero privacy. I’ve lived in shared apartments most of the last two years while I’ve been teaching. I won’t accept a teaching contract unless the company assists with housing. I’m simply not in a position to find a place on my own, so they are going to have to do the legwork for at least the initial months. In Russia and Spain, the accommodations were part of the compensation. In Turkey, I got 3 free months in an apartment with the understanding that I could extend my stay or even move to another apartment with the same English speaking landlords. In Vietnam, the school had an apartment which I rented (though I hadn’t been told I’d have a roommate. Surprise!). Here in Mexico, they found an apartment for me, (though clearly no one bothered to look at the place or ask the price ahead of time).
Remember, though, that if you lose your job with your employer, you can also lose your housing if they are providing the apartment. Something to think about.
But sometimes, like here in Mexico, you have to look for something better. I look for accommodation (in my price range) based on these things: 1). Safety Can I walk around outside at night? I usually teach in the evenings, so may come home late. 2). Cleanliness I don’t have to be able to eat off the floor, but I don’t want bugs, either. You may have to lower your standards here. 3). Proximity to my work I want to keep my commute time/costs to a minimum. 4) Facilities Does the place have everything I need? Bed with linen & pillow? Bathroom that isn’t shared by too many people? Kitchen with cooking/eating utensils? Is there a washer/ironing board/drying rack? How is trash handled? 5) Location Is it close to the things I need? Grocery? Restaurants? Laundry facilities? Public transportation?
My current flat isn’t ideal, but it (mostly) meets the first two criteria and I’ve found ways to mitigate the others. Though I’ve always had a separate bedroom, living alone is seldom going to be an option. There are some super-small studio apartments here in San Luis Potosi and if I can find one in my budget, I’ll consider it, but I think I’m at the lowest price place I can find but still live in comfortably.
Stay in one place longer: The big expense with this kind of life is the plane flight to a new location and the initial costs of moving.
Flights are expensive and you may have to pay extra for baggage. For example, I carry only one suitcase and a large backpack of belongings. It isn’t much. However, on some flights, only one is allowed without paying an overage charge. The second bag can cost an additional $100. You have to decide if it’s cheaper to buy new stuff or pay the fee.
And there are other expenses, as well. You usually end up paying for a hotel for a couple days when you move to a new city. Since you don’t know how to get around you take more expensive taxis rather than walk or use public transportation. There may be the first month’s rent plus deposit to pay. And you may or may not have gotten your damage deposit back from the last place. Every new place seems to need a few things. My first flat in Mexico needed a fan and hangars just to get unpacked and be able to sleep comfortably. These are bulkly items that I’m not likely to take with me when I move.
If you stay in one place longer, those costs don’t crop up so often and you have a chance to save up for the next move. Also, some schools have an end-of-contract bonus or will reimburse some travel fees if you complete your contract, typically a year. End of contract bonuses are pretty precarious, however. In Russia, they paid for flights in and out of the country, but they set a cap so low that it only paid about half my travel costs. In Turkey, the end of contract bonus was very substantial. I lived on it for almost 3 months while in Spain and hiking the Camino. Of course, I had to sit in the office for four days straight, waiting for them to pay me. They clearly hoped I’d have a flight out and have to leave before they got around to paying me. It was humiliating and demeaning, but in the end they paid me just to get rid of me. Not everyone was so lucky. Personally, I will shy away from contracts like that from now on.
Frankly, I make enough money teaching to live from day to day and save a tiny bit. It’s like volunteering with room, board and a small stipend. When I transfer to another country, I may have to dip into my savings for the travel and at least some of the initial set up fees. For most “adventures,” like a few extra days in Moscow or Mexico City, I definitely dip into savings. I prepared for this financial situation ahead of time, so it’s not a problem for me, but if I had to live just on what I make, I wouldn’t be able to do much additional travel.
There are some places I’d like to teach that pay even worse than where I’ve lived so far. Some don’t pay at all. India and Nepal are on my list, but I can’t even make enough money to afford to live and eat in these emerging countries. I can’t go to them right now. There are some “volunteer vacations” that, while not pricey by vacation standards, are out of my reach without putting a huge strain on my savings. I’d like to work on an archaeological dig and monitor sea turtles, for example, but it’s too pricey on my teacher’s salary. I’ve had offers for long term house-sitting in Europe, but would need money to get to the home and then be able to eat while I’m there. There’s no guarantee I’d be able to work (and in an EU country with a US passport the odds of working legally are slim).
Having money changes things. I’ll get my first pension in about 2.5 years and while I won’t be wealthy, I’ll suddenly have an independent source of income. In most of Latin American, it’s enough to live better than I live now. Who knows what I may do then?